I knew I was in love with Fleabag at approximately the 30-second mark of the show’s second episode, a scene that starts with its protagonist sitting in the London subway. We hear the opening chords of “Sail” by AWOLNATION, a howling, corny 2011 pop-rock ballad previously used in BMW commercials. The people on the train wear blank expressions, evacuated of emotion—but then, when the song hits its short, screeching hook, they double over and wail in silent pain. When the song’s hook ends, they slump back in their seats, impassive. When it returns, they wail again. One woman with burgundy braids—who had been absentmindedly applying lip gloss—clutches the leg of the man sitting next to her and crumples into his shoulder. Then Fleabag, our protagonist, turns to the camera and deadpans, “I think my period’s coming.”
In Fleabag, we see everything that happens in the show through its protagonist’s eyes, and she has a taste for chaos and hyperbole. Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who adapted the series from a 2013 one-woman play of the same name, our narrator—identified in the credits only as Fleabag—is a 33-year-old café owner who uses sex to distract herself from grief over the death of her mother and, more recently, the suicide of her best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford). She also frequently breaks the fourth wall and shoots asides at the camera, apparently another coping mechanism: Her undefined audience serves as an outlet for all the sidelong glances, jokes, and eviscerating assessments of other people that she can’t share publicly. In the scene on the Tube, the commuters weren’t literally caterwauling to the drop of “Sail.” But in a flash of hormonal lucidity, Fleabag could imagine their repressed pain erupting, just for a moment, if they let down their guard. It was too good an image to keep to herself, so she shared it with us.
Sometimes, a piece of media manages to crystallize a reality that has been felt for a while without finding its narrative form. Fleabag is that kind of show—brutally funny, it also says something genuinely new about the gap between the private and public self in an era of constant self-narrativization. In a moment in which subjecthood is a freshly mineable commodity, Waller-Bridge offers apparently unlimited access to the mind of one very funny, flawed, incisive woman. We become obsessed with her; she is obsessed with us. Fleabag understands the power she holds as a narrator to shape not only how she is perceived but also who she is. Yet when her power reaches its limits, we also see the toll of turning oneself into a story and the freedom in giving it up.
In the series’ two-season, 12-episode run, we watch Fleabag punch someone, steal money out of a date’s wallet, end other people’s relationships, masturbate to a Barack Obama speech about U.S.-British relations, begin an affair with a “hot” Roman Catholic priest (Andrew Scott), and cause at least one projectile-vomiting attack with recklessly mislabeled shellfish canapes. Despite this, she possesses an unflagging dirtbag magnetism, the same quality the Internet has labeled “big dick energy.” In some cases, humiliation seems to make Fleabag more powerful. When she chats with the priest about a painting her horrible stepmother (Olivia Colman) donated for a church auction, she tries and fails to stop herself from passing along the information that her stepmother had an orgasm as she finished the painting. “Ah,” says the priest, his eyes widening with unbidden appreciation. “Well, whatever gets you there.”
Fleabag internalizes everything she can’t make into a joke—after Boo’s death, she has no one to share even her mundane thoughts with, much less her grief—but her asides turn the business of repression into an inside joke, a private game. In the show’s fourth episode, Fleabag and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) travel to a country estate for a women-only silent retreat. The grounds border a similar facility where the all-male workshop participants yell slurs in order to exorcise their toxic masculinity. Shouts of “Slut!” ring across the green hills while the women perform their menial gardening tasks, which have been sold to them as a meditative practice.
“This weekend is about being mindful,” the retreat leader tells her charges. “It’s about leaving your voice in your head and trapping your thoughts in your skull. Think of it as a thought prison in your mind.” By contrast, at the men’s workshop, a coddling facilitator leads a role-playing exercise in which the men vent what they shouldn’t say to a colleague named Patricia, represented by a sex doll with a curly black wig and business-casual attire. “Who’d you blow to get that job?” ventures one. “Slut. You fucking stupid slut!” spits another, the tendons in his jaw straining. When the men are asked what they should say, there’s a long pause before the doll receives a single, tepid “Well done, Patricia.”
Although Fleabag and Claire eventually get in trouble for flouting the retreat’s rules, Fleabag already follows them in spirit: She keeps her voice in her head and traps plenty of thoughts in her skull. Her method—shooting morbid one-liners at an unseen audience—is much more interesting than anything the retreat leaders could imagine, but this is the grand joke of female socialization: The pressure to internalize everything can produce a flowering, majestic inner life—majestic precisely because it is incompatible with the world outside. It can create a sensibility that is deep where the range of acceptable female emotion is shallow, particularly when it comes to matters of sex, rage, pain, and judgment. Fleabag’s narrative voice is masterful, but her riotous wit is the by-product of reconciling herself to the fact that no one wants to hear her thoughts.
Fleabag offers as a foil to this cursed self-knowledge the spectrum of male obliviousness, demonstrated by the men at the retreat and the string of arrogant lunatics she dates. (One memorably describes his interests as a filmmaker as “life, and how it affects lots of people in all sorts of different ways.”) Its best avatar is Martin (Brett Gelman), Claire’s oily husband, whom Waller-Bridge has described as a
“weapons-grade asshole.” In an attempt to save his marriage in the series’ final episode, Martin delivers the Gettysburg address of manchild speeches, a monologue that starts with a boastful list of all the nonessential chores he performs: “I make dessert for Easter, I organize the downstairs toilet….I hoover the car!” Then his voice cracks with emotion as he shouts, “I am not a bad guy! I just have a bad personality. It’s not my fault; some people are born with fucked personalities!”
When this defense fails (imagine organizing a bathroom without cleaning it!), Martin is dejected. “Right, well. I guess the only thing left for me to say is—” He turns to Fleabag. “Fuck you.”
Because the narrative voice of the series emanates from one person’s psyche, there are a few things that it is not: The voice is not omniscient, and it is not unbiased. Fleabag spends a lot of time guessing what other people are about to do or say, and some of the show’s most interesting moments come when she gets it wrong. Claire, who’s described as “probably anorexic,” bites into a tart the second after Fleabag assures us that “she won’t eat it.” At a counseling session in the second season, when Fleabag quips that she’s spent most of her adult life “using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart” and then whispers to the camera, “I’m good at this,” she unwittingly gives the therapist (Fiona Shaw) an opening to dissect her bleak word choice. She tells us that her ex-boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner) always leaves a dinosaur figurine behind during a breakup so he’ll have an excuse to return; by the end of the episode, both Harry and the dinosaur are gone.
There are also things that Fleabag knows but does not want to share with her audience. In the first season’s final episode, in the middle of a fight, Claire accuses her sister of betraying Boo. Suddenly, we see new fragments of Fleabag’s memories about Boo’s suicide, jumbled and jaggedly cut together, and Fleabag is reeling away, looking for a place to hide from a shot that is lumbering after her like a cameraman on The Jerry Springer Show. The scene establishes that Fleabag might be misleading us—that she will not put her most significant sources of guilt and shame on display—but it also shows that her power as a storyteller has limits. She may not tell us the whole truth, but she can’t block out information if someone else introduces it.
In the show’s second season—after Fleabag’s life has stabilized, as established by a montage of avocado toast and a shouting personal trainer—the formula flips. As their mutual flirtation nears its peak, the priest shocks Fleabag by noticing, at certain moments, that she’s speaking to someone else. “What was that?” he asks after she makes an aside to the camera as they sit outside his rectory drinking canned gin and tonics. “You just went somewhere…. Where’d you just go?” He confronts her a second time in her café as she struggles to tell him about Boo. Fleabag tries to demur, but he won’t let it go: “Tell me what’s going on underneath there.”
Beyond its merits as a story about grief and female rage, Fleabag expresses a uniquely contemporary narrative paradigm, in which an everyday figure—not a celebrity, artist, or expert—is endowed with an omnipresent audience and must retain its attention with a rare alloy of charisma and relatability. The result is an affect that is candid without becoming inauthentic, novel but not intimidating or inaccessible, all while concealing the effort behind its maintenance. Without being particularly interested in the Internet per se, Fleabag’s self-deprecating tone and rapid-fire pacing draw from the same well as YouTube vlogs or bite-size Snapchat videos. The self in these forms is, by necessity, at the center, and there is no pretense to universality; these everyday creators speak for themselves and their own idiosyncratic circumstances.
Fleabag articulates what is hopeful about the rise of this partisan voice: In the absence of an omniscient narrator, different versions of the truth fill in the space left behind. One critique of new media—both born-digital forms and the format in which they appear—is that the funneling of stories and images of diverse origin into the same platforms creates a leveling effect. For example, the adjacency on YouTube of, say, footage of an embarrassing diplomatic blunder, a doctored clip from a militaristic action film that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, and a 40-minute-long rebuttal to character attacks by a fellow beauty blogger can be mind-numbing, but one useful result is that, by virtue of the format in which these individual clips are consumed, they create the occasion for response. Try to control the story and people will get in the way.
The narrative arts have always attracted people with Fleabag’s formidable perceptive powers but also her flaws: narcissism, a desire to always get the last word, and a tendency to see herself as dynamic and others as unchanging. The genius of Fleabag the show is its willingness to undermine Fleabag the character. The ability to shape the story—a power traditionally vested in a narrator—gets siphoned away from its protagonist and redistributed to the other characters. When the priest notices Fleabag’s tendency to go “somewhere” for the second time, he has just asked a series of questions she does not want to answer: about her stepmother, her mother, and, indirectly, Boo. We cut to a brief shot of Boo shaking her head: Don’t tell my story. She turns to the camera and quips, “He’s a bit annoying, actually.” “What is that?” the priest demands, and his eyes briefly flick to the camera. “That thing that you’re doing.It’s like you disappear…”
Fleabag insists that it’s nothing—first to him, then to us—and when she looks at her audience, he wheels around and shouts into the camera like a schoolboy goading animals at the zoo. “I’m just trying to get to know you,” he insists. “Well, I don’t want that,” Fleabag says sharply; soon after, he leaves. Then, for the rest of the episode, she revisits memories of her mother’s funeral that we haven’t seen before.
Although Fleabag is fiction, it matters that within its world, characters occasionally contradict the story its narrator is telling and force her to adjust. It also matters that the limits of Fleabag’s disclosures never lessened my devotion to her, although her fear that being honest will lead to abandonment effectively serves as the show’s engine. Being the protagonist of your own story can protect you from the world’s indifference, but it also creates distance; it forms a hierarchy in which the realest, most valid feelings are the ones that most closely mirror your own. In the series’ finale, after losing the man she loves to God, Fleabag lets her audience go. She turns to the camera and gives a small, sad shake of her head before walking away. The camera doesn’t follow her. Halfway down the block, she lifts her hand in a wave and keeps walking until the screen cuts to black.